I can’t believe how fast January has flown by! I hope this month’s explorations of Scotland have whetted your appetite for a future Highland adventure. Before Lexi Bites heads (virtually) to warmer climes, I wanted to shed some light on Scotland’s other favorite beverage—beer.
Though I’ve drank a fair number of authentic Scotch ales and American Scottish-style ales, I’d never call myself an expert. For that, I turned to Jason McLaughlin, a Certified Cicerone, National ranked Beer Judge, and homebrewer. I’ve known Jason for many years through the local homebrewing club, The Lincoln Lagers.
According to Jason, Scotland has a long and storied brewing history, though few records survived before the 19th century. Their most famous style, Wee Heavy, has a high alcohol content, between 6-10 percent.
“That type of beer was popular in the United States, the United Kingdom and the West Indies. It had a lot of reach,” Jason said. “The beer would last a long time due to its high alcohol content.”
Scotch ales are also coveted for their sweet, caramelized flavor. To this day, brewers put the pale malt through a long boiling process, which brings out and caramelizes the natural sugar flavors. While a typical English beer is fermented in the high 60s to low 70s, Scotch ales are fermented at lower temperatures, around 60 degrees. Low-temp fermentation reduces the fruity esters in the finished product, leaving a clean, malty flavor.
In general, Scottish brewers go easy on the hops, but in the late 18th and early 19th century, hop-laden India Pale Ales were a significant Scottish export. As the style grew more popular in the England, Scotland brewers began brewing their own style, McLaughlin said.
“They used really hard water from wells in Edinburgh,” Jason said. “Suddenly, they’re making India Pale Ales that were more popular than the English version.”
Scottish ales also had a unique naming system, based on the Schilling currency. The stronger the beer, the more it was taxed:
- Scottish Light (2.5-3.2% ABV) – 60 Shilling
- Scottish Heavy (3.2-3.9%) – 70 Shilling
- Scottish Export (3.9-5.0%) – 80 Shilling
- Scotch Ale (Wee Heavy) (5.0-10.0%) – 90 Shilling
All this talk of beer is probably making you thirsty, and you’re in luck, there are plenty of delicious Scotch ales waiting to quench your thirst.
For an authentic Scotch ale, check out Traquair House Ale. The wee heavy isn’t light by any means. Clocking in at 7.2% ABV, it’s the perfect winter ale, with easy drink, sweet caramel notes and a rich oakiness from the beer’s fermentation in unlined oak tuns. Traquair House is the only remaining brewery in the U.K. that ferments in oak.
Scottish style ales are a very popular style for American microbreweries. Three easy-to-find favorites are 90 Shilling, from Odell Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Empyrean Ales’ Burning Sky, from Lincoln, Nebraska, and Old Chub from Oskar Blues in Longmont, Colorado.
90 Shilling, at 5.3% ABV, is Odell’s flagship beer. The medium-bodied, fruity brown ale is easy to drink and even easier to love.
Burning Sky is rich and full-bodied. Made with a combination of honey, caramel, smoked and midnight wheat malt, paired with cascade and nugget hops, it’s a perfect partner for barbecue or meat dishes. And at only 5.3% ABV, it won’t hurt to have more than one.
Jason also recommends Oskar Blues Old Chub as a “great wee heavy in a can.” It’s 8.0% ABV, made from plenty of malted barley and a pinch of smoked malt. I haven’t had a chance to try this particular Oskar Blues beer, as the company just came into the Nebraska market in January. If it’s just a fraction as good as their other beers, and recommended by a beer professional, it’s definitely worth checking out.
Rich and toasty, with just enough alcohol to warm you up, Scotch ales are the perfect winter brew. Check out my recommended beers or find a favorite at a local brewery in your neck of the woods. As the Scotch say, Slainte!